Black History Month – progress on Black representation in tech not good enough, says Zuora CDO Valerie Jackson

Madeline Bennett Profile picture for user Madeline Bennett February 28, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Zuora’s CDO argues a fundamental shift is needed to build better products and better representation.

Zuora

Although Valerie Jackson is relatively new to the technology sector, she has a much longer history working in diversity and inclusion. This is her second career; her first was as a finance lawyer with a background in capital markets and financial regulation. She was recruited to build a diversity program in a law firm almost 15 years ago, and has been building such initiatives from the ground up at various global organizations ever since, joining Zuora as its first Chief Diversity Officer in October 2020.

Jackson made the move to technology as she has always viewed it as an industry of innovation, core to building the future and changing the present. However, she is aware it is also a place that requires fundamental change, especially when it comes down to Black and African American representation.

While technology firms have been very vocal in their support for racial equality and have donated huge sums to support affected communities, the industry is still viewed as a (white) 'bro culture' – fairly, in certain cases - and there are many examples of blatant bias in AI. Jackson says:

What pops to mind is a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: ‘No problem can be solved from the same consciousness that created it’. There has to be a fundamental shift in who we listen to, who we invite because tech - as innovative as it is - can be insular at times.

If you are creating a product that relies on infrared technology that bounces off skin tones differently, and you didn't have people with different skin tones in your test group – we need to always seek other opinions, other experiences, other mindsets, other backgrounds to help us see and touch more people and build better AI.”

To help bring about this change, Zuora has many initiatives in place, both within and outside the company. To mark Black History Month this February, the firm has chosen the theme of Black health and wellness, with events including a ‘Did you know’ session, educating employees on all aspects of black health and wellness around the globe. Zuora is supporting this with a company-wide launch of Modern Health, a mental health healthcare platform on offer to all employees for free. Jackson explains:

They have tremendous culturally sensitive resources and circles, where for instance, as a black woman, I can go into a circle for black women, feel supported in my unique experience and connect with folks around a potential or particular need that I have.

There are also many employee resource groups (ERGs) throughout Zuora, which are all open to all staff. This includes the Zuora Black Network, one of the oldest and largest of its ERGs, notes Jackson: 

It's a great way to help us feel connected in a time when we, in many instances, are so disconnected physically, spread throughout the world, working from home.

Partnering 

Zuora has also established partnerships with organizations designed to support underrepresented groups in tech, including Dev/Mission aimed at low-income young adults; and Climb Hire, which trains diverse talent to break into new careers. Zuora has gone on to hire many interns from these programs. Jackson explains: 

Both of these organizations train people from historically underserved communities and help them land jobs in tech, whether the assistance comes through volunteering or through annual donations. Our folks are thrilled to be involved with these organizations, because the energy you get from helping someone, being the person perhaps you wish you'd had earlier in your career, is phenomenal.

The company is also embarking on a new partnership to create a cohort of impact-driven entrepreneurs from underrepresented backgrounds, who will help to increase diversity within the Subscription Economy.

When it comes to supporting underrepresented groups within the business, Zuora is looking at those who are historically underrepresented from a gender and ethnicity perspective, but the firm is striving to support all the most vulnerable groups within its population. Jackson says: 

Maybe you aren't part of a historically under-represented group, but if you are a caregiver in Covid, your life has likely been turned upside down. So how can we be thoughtful about who our efforts benefit? It's looking at the data, drawing hypotheses, working to rectify or improve the experience of groups that we have identified as being underrepresented in our population.

While Zuora is still in the process of collecting this data to get a true picture of underrepresented groups within its workforce, it is running a concurrent program to target people in these groups when it comes to hiring and talent retention. Jackson would like to do more: 

I wish we had the luxury of doing one and then the other. We’re definitely working with the data we have, but I know that our data are incomplete. We have to create space for what we don't know, but we are working to shrink the delta while also leveraging data we do have to build programs to drive decisions.

There is still a long way to go. Black or African Americans account for just 5% of the tech sector, but that number is nearer to 3% among many enterprise technology vendors. Jackson is very definite in her response to whether that’s a good enough number for the tech industry, considering Black and African Americans make up 13% of the US population:

If you're asking me if it's enough, it's never enough. Are you asking me, am I surprised? - we have a lot of work to do in this industry. We are not yet at the point where we have the data that we share publicly in a disaggregated way, but I can tell you that we are in line with - for better or for worse - the industry. For me, that's not good enough.

Jackson said this was down to two reasons: science and humanity. Research proves diverse decision-making teams drive higher earnings, while diverse product-building teams build better products with larger market share and greater applicability to more users. There is also the human element at play, which makes role models so crucial, she argues: 

When you look in the rooms where you want to go, and you have never seen, heard, felt anyone who has traversed a similar course as yours in life, that doesn't mean you don't want to go in the room. It doesn't mean you can't go in the room, but it does mean that you need a lot of courage and self-belief to propel yourself into that room and go where no-one has gone before. Every leader in an organization has a responsibility to communicate that there is infinite possibility available for all.

While Jackson is keen to see an increase in diverse talent, both within Zuora and the tech sector in general, she is less enthused about the prospect of quotas to drive up that 3%.

Inside the US, there is a visceral reaction to quotas. Some people and companies are more comfortable with targets, because it's more like an aspiration, it's a directional goal as opposed to a hard and fast requirement. In the US, you don't see a lot of quotas because of the backlash and tension they cause, and also unfortunately, sometimes the impression they create that the people who fill the quotas are themselves tokens.

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